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In Japan, sake with a foreign twist

An unlikely master brewer is hoping to revive the centuries-old drink's flagging popularity -- an auburn haired Briton, Philip Harper, who fell in love with the drink and the culture that produced it.

February 03, 2009|John M. Glionna

KUMIHAMA, JAPAN — As master brewers have done for 13 centuries before him, the sake factory boss is everywhere at once in his rustic timbered building along Japan's rugged northern coastline: helping to drag sacks of rice, gently issuing instructions to his four brewing assistants, consulting with his own boss, a fifth-generation owner.

Like those who came before him, he runs his factory floor with the fussy fastidiousness of a French chef, changing from shoes to slippers a hundred times a day as he rushes between production areas and brewing rooms, stripping off his shirt to dash into a 104-degree rice-drying room.

But unlike them, this sake master has curly auburn hair, a degree from Oxford and speaks Japanese as a second language.

They call him "the sake savant," but that doesn't bother Philip Harper, a 42-year-old native of another rugged coastline, thousands of miles away: Cornwall, in southwest England.

For 18 years, this unlikely foreigner has stubbornly endured both hard labor and silent resistance, studying Japanese and the brewing craft until he was eventually accepted -- and celebrated -- by even the most traditional brewers.

In sake-drinking circles across Japan and abroad, Harper is considered a cross-cultural pioneer: the only non-Japanese sake-maker to rise to the rank of toji, or master brewer. This "miracle" of the conservative world of Japanese brewing has people scratching their heads that a foreigner has emerged as the boss of a factory floor.

"Philip loves sake, but he also loves Japanese traditional culture," says Hiroshi Ujita, a Kyoto brewery owner. "His character is almost Japanese. He understands the Japanese way of thinking, our style of daily life. You can taste it in his sake."

Harper has also become something akin to the great white hope for sake: Sales of sake, once the nation's favorite drink, have plummeted here. It's been written off as "an old man's drink" as younger consumers turn to beverages such as beer, whiskey and shochu, a fiery local spirit.

At the same time, sake is being discovered by overseas drinkers -- especially in the U.S., where a handful of factories, some U.S.-owned, have successfully promoted the drink as the newest trend.

Harper has a plan: He's launched a campaign, through writing and touring, to bring sake to a wider audience, especially in Japan.

Since he joined the Tamagawa, or Jewel River, sake factory last year, Harper has helped expand sales across Japan. The brand will also be available in the U.S. this year.

"Sometimes it takes an outsider to make you see something that is so close to your field of vision that you no longer see its beauty," says Beau Timken, a San Francisco sake aficionado who in 2003 opened True Sake, which he says is the first dedicated sake store outside Japan.

"Philip is that outsider. He is reminding the Japanese that sake is not just your father's drink."

Harper arrived in Japan in 1988, an Oxford graduate who came to Osaka to teach English. He spoke no Japanese, and felt like an alien.

Then he stumbled upon perhaps the nation's most impenetrable realm of all: sake-making.

On weekend outings, he drank warm, inexpensive sake until a friend introduced him to a mind-numbing array of chilled varieties.

He was immediately seduced by the exotic rituals: The drink was sipped from tiny porcelain cups, poured from china decanters, never self-served, but always by others.

He loved the product names, many derived from cultural icons such as sumo wrestlers and ancient poets. He prized the gorgeous swirling calligraphy on each bottle, which seemed more objet d'art than utilitarian vessel.

But the taste was what finally changed his life.

"How on Earth do you make a drink with the fragrance of fruit from rice?" he later wrote in his first book, "The Insider's Guide to Sake," published in 1998. "My curiosity was piqued and my palate seduced: I was hooked."

After leaving teaching, he worked nights at a sake bar, and visited a friend who worked at a brewery. He was a curious sight to the Japanese workers: a foreigner fascinated by their labors.

The next year, in 1991, he persuaded the owner to give him a job. In Japan, brewery owners traditionally don't get involved in making sake, leaving the task to master brewers who often come with their own teams. When the master brewer learned that a foreigner was being foisted upon his crew, Harper recalled, his reaction was quick: "How awful."

"The owner himself joked that I would be gone in a few weeks," Harper recalls. "I was there 10 years."

He was soon consumed by the demanding pace of the work, where machines with whirling spikes often cause injury. The owner enrolled him in a sake correspondence course, buying him textbooks on the complex yet delicate science of taste and smell.

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